Most fishermen and others very familiar with the ocean don't really fear sharks in the abstract, but they certainly respect their raw power and are aware of the potential danger of an attack. Shark attacks on humans are a lot like getting struck by lightning; both rarely happen, but smart people avoid close contact with either one.
Sharks are quite simply swimming, eating machines. They are the marauders of the sea, apex predators, killers - you pick your favorite word. Sharks must keep moving or they die so they are constantly cruising.
Fishermen can have fun with summer sharks two different ways in the Beaufort/Hilton Head area. You can go light and shallow for the smaller ones or heavy and deep for some real bruisers. The big bruisers are best left to the professionals or those properly rigged for handling very large and dangerous fish.
Back in the 1940s, before regulations which now prohibit it, Ralph Davis and his friends had summer fun with big sharks and made some spending cash in the process.
"My friends and I fished on Seabrook's Beach in the little cut between Seabrook and Kiawah Islands with a truck, a car tire inner-tube, a 1/4-inch line, a glass bottle - plastic bottles didn't exist - a length of chain with a big hook hooked into a sting ray, and also a board."
One member of the group, the loser of the draw, loaded the chain, bottle and hooked skate onto the board and swam it out into the deep channel, dragging the line behind him. He dumped the contents into the deep water and used the board to swim back. The other end of the line was tied to the inner-tube and that to the bumper of their old Ford. Once set, the teenagers sat in the truck listening to the radio and watched the bottle. When the bottle began bouncing rapidly, they shifted the truck into reverse and backed the shark out of the water. They caught some monsters that way, far larger than a man could haul ashore by hand. Once subdued and cleaned, they would carry the shark off to Charleston and sell the meat.
Teen-aged fun was different back then.
Fishing for smaller sharks is great summer fun from small boats with medium to heavyweight tackle. The "Fishing Coach'" Capt. Dan Utley of Hilton Head Island, fishes for every inshore species at some time or other during the year, and he likes targeting smaller sharks when the redfish bite cools during the summer or when his clients want some exciting action without any species preference. He also catches lots of sharks as incidental by-catch when targeting cobia with bait on the bottom.
Two species dominate the small sharks found in the near-shore waters of the Lowcountry: bonnetheads and Atlantic sharpnoses.
Utley often casts to bonnetheads he sees cruising in shallow water, and he also pulls them from deeper holes at junctions of large creeks and main channels. Most gradual sand flats on the sides of a channel that are good redfish flats are also home to bonnetheads cruising in water less than a foot deep and easy to spot with their dorsal fin and tail tip out of the water. Utley likes to cast to bonnetheads with the same spinning tackle he uses for redfish, often with a crab on a circle hook behind a float.
Atlantic sharpnose sharks are normally targeted in 20 to 30 feet of water over irregular, hardbottom and structure. With these deeper-water sharks, Utley uses a Shimano TLD 15, level-wind reel on a stout rod, loaded with 30-pound test and ties on a 5-foot leader of 80- to 100-pound monofilament and large, 6/0 to 9/0 circle hook. Depending on the amount of current, he uses a 5- to 8-ounce, slipping egg sinker behind the leader to take the bait to the bottom. His favorite baits are live or dead mullet and menhaden.
Catching sharks is not difficult, as almost any bottom rig loaded with fresh bait will elicit strikes. Handling them is a little more tricky. Commercial Carolina rigs - the kind with egg sinkers and wire available at most local retailers - work just fine, as do homemade, heavy monofilament rigs with bullet slip sinkers. Circle hooks work well especially when rods are secured in rod holders or if you have the patience to let the shark hook itself.
Davis' favorite homemade bottom rig utilizes a 3-way swivel with the running line as attached to one eye. To the second eye is tied a 2 1/2-foot wire leader and a large hook. The third eye has one foot of mono leader ending with a bank sinker. Davis feels that the length of monofilament leading to the sinker keeps the bait from resting tight to the bottom and reduces the interference from crabs.
Another option is making a saltwater Carolina rig with a slip-sleeve and pyramid sinker attached to the running line above a standard swivel with a couple feet of wire down to a large hook. This rig allows the shark to pick up a bait without feeling much resistance from the sinker. Whether you pick a Carolina rig or bottom rig with a pyramid, bank or bullet sinker, the last section should be wire or very heavy mono to avoid cutting off a big fish.
Handling most small sharks requires care, especially if you hook a blacktip. Utley has only been bitten twice in his career and both, he said, were small blacktips he was handling from behind their heads. When he got distracted and looked away, the sharks somehow twisted around and grabbed him.
Sharks will eat almost anything, but favorite baits include stingray wings, mullet, baby shark or any other dead or live legal fish. With live fish, slashing across their backs draws blood without killing the fish, adding an extra attractant.
Small sharks often share the same water with redfish though sharks normally cruise a little more shallow than the reds. Occasionally you can catch big redfish with chunks.
WHEN TO GO - Sharks are everywhere in the summer. For shallow water, light-tackle action, fish the two hours either side of low tide.
HOW TO GET THERE - The Sands landing in downtown Port Royal has access to the Beaufort River, outer Broad River and the Paris Island split area. The landing at Station Creek on St. Helena Island has good access for the Trenchards Inlet area. The Chechessee River landing has access to the Chechessee and the lower Broad River, and the landing on US 278 at Pinckney Island is another good access point. Many other free public landing options are available.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Capt. Dan Utley, Fishing Coach Charters, Hilton Head, 843-368-2126; Capt. Chip Michalove, Outcast Fishing, Hilton Head, 843-293-0371; Bay Street Outfitters, Beaufort, 843-524-5250; Grayco Hardware, Lady's Island, 843-521-8060; Beaufort Boat and Dock Supply, Port Royal, 843-986-0552.
ACCOMMODATIONS - Beaufort Area Chamber of Commerce, 843-986-5400; Hilton Head Island/ Bluffton Chamber, 843-785-3673.
MAPS - Top Spot map number N233, showing details on many of the local shallow water spots, is available from local tackle shops.